LOS ANGELES — The 69-year-old visitor to the downtown Grammy Museum strolled with fascination through its new exhibit of Alfred Wertheimer’s celebrated 1956 photos of Elvis Presley at 21, just as the impossibly handsome young singer was on the threshold of stardom.
Like most other visitors taking in the remarkably unguarded photos, this bearded gentleman exhibited affection and appreciation for the black-and-white portraits of Presley’s quiet moments — lunching at a diner; teasing, and being teased, by a female fan — some of the last such moments he would enjoy before exploding as the biggest star in the pop music universe.
But occasionally came an expression that none of the others wandering the gallery could offer: understanding.
“The start of all our careers was quiet like that,” said Ringo Starr, the former Beatle enjoying a relatively quiet few minutes of his own, perusing the Elvis photos before a question-answer session and performance a short time later. “We didn’t expect any problems, and then suddenly it gets wild — and it did.”
Things are, of course, less wild today for Starr than they were 45 years ago when the Fab Four supplanted Elvis at the top of the pop heap. The world’s most famous drummer was a Beatle for eight years, and he’s been an ex-Beatle for five times that long now. But hardly a minute goes by when the topic doesn’t come up.
After making his way through the photo display, Starr headed straight for the museum store in search of an Elvis T-shirt but quickly found himself faced with apparel bearing his own visage along with those of John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison. Eventually, though, he found what he was after and slipped on the Presley shirt for his evening session, an event he took on in conjunction with the release last week of his latest album, “Y Not.”
It’s a milestone for him in a couple of respects: It’s the first time in his half-century career he’s taken the wheel as producer, in addition to singing, drumming and co-writing most of its songs. He’ll be singing some of those songs during his next All-Starr Band tour, during which he’ll become the first Beatle to turn 70, on July 7.
Is 70 a big number?
“No — not as big as 40 was,” he said, looking a good 15 years younger than you might expect.
He’s trim — like McCartney and his late pal Harrison, he’s an avowed vegetarian — and outfitted in a black band-collar peacoat, black jeans and the ever-present dark glasses. His hair and beard are close-cropped, only a few wrinkles on his neck betraying his age.
“Forty was: ‘Oh, God, 40!’” he said with a hearty laugh. “There’s that damn song, ‘Life Begins at 40.’ No, it’s not so big anymore. I am nearly 70, and I’d love to be nearly 40, but that’s never going to happen.
“I feel the older I get, the more I’m learning to handle life,” he said, the charming Liverpudlian accent nearly as strong as ever, even though he’s maintained a home in Los Angeles for the last 34 years — the majority of it with actress Barbara Bach, whom he married in 1981 — along with residences in England and Monte Carlo.
“Y Not” doesn’t vary greatly from the approach he’s taken through much of his solo career: lots of collaborations with high-profile musician friends, some lightweight rockers that give him the opportunity to exercise his well-honed chops behind the drum kit and a couple of meatier numbers that let the man of a thousand quips touch on the matters of the spirit that mean the most to him.
“You can be serious in a good up way,” Starr said. “I think this record has captured where I’m trying to be musically and as a writer. My spirits are high.”
As the years roll by, he said, “I think (spiritual issues) are more prominent.” On “Y Not,” that manifests in “Peace Dream,” which name checks Lennon and reiterates his message from “Imagine.” On 2008’s “Liverpool 8,” it showed up in the unflinchingly direct ballad “Love Is” and “R U Ready,” a country gospel rave up about the universality of spiritual yearning.
“Being on this quest for a long time, it’s all about finding yourself,” Starr said. “For me, God is in my life. I don’t hide from that. ... I think the search has been on since the ‘60s. ... I stepped off the path there for many years and found my way (back) onto it, thank God,” a reference to the wild days of rampant alcohol and drug use that ensued after the Beatles broke up, when Starr ran amok, often in the company of Lennon and singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson.
Van Dyke Parks, with whom he wrote the album’s first single, “Walk With You,” was also part of that circle at times.
“Ringo and I survived Harry Nilsson, who’d introduced us,” Parks said last week. “So many acquaintances I reveled with in the lettuce years later sobered up and dropped me like a bad habit. Ringo is an exception. What a lad! He called and I spent an afternoon with him in hot pursuit of a transitive idea. It was fun.”
It’s also yielded one of the album’s high points, “Walk With You,” a song expressing gratitude toward a loved one that is elevated further by an echoing harmony sung by McCartney.
Starr had invited his other half in the Beatles rhythm section over to add a bass part to “Peace Dream.” “He understands my drumming,” Starr explained to the Grammy Museum audience later from his perch on a stool at the front of the stage, adding with a straight face: “We used to play together.”
“While he was at the house I played him some of the other tracks, and when he heard ‘Walk With You,’ he said, ‘Hey, I’ve got an idea for that.’ The great thing is that he doesn’t just sing harmony, he sort of answers my part,” he said, adding with a wizened laugh: “That’s why he’s the genius.”
He doesn’t mind admitting that when it comes to music, he still gets by with more than a little help from his friends. So even though it’s possible today to make music by way of e-mailed Pro Tools sound files sent across the globe and back, Starr says, “I have no interest in that sort of music. I like to be with musicians. I like hanging out with them, but I love playing with musicians.”
On the verge of 70, that’s as true for Starr as it was at 20.
“When I was in my early 20s and we were the opening act for this girl in England, her band (members) were like 40 years old,” he said. “I clearly remember thinking, ‘You’re still doing it? God!’”
A broad smile comes over the famous face: “And here we are, we’re still doing it. Because this is what we do.”